Merlin, a helping hand for birders

Apr 11, 2013

More than one in five Americans engage in bird watching. Now, upstate researchers are making it easier to identify different species with an artificial intelligence program called Merlin.

“Merlin is an online bird ID tool. So you can imagine that you’re walking outside and you see a bird you don’t recognize, you might be tempted to ask a friend what that bird was and to describe the bird to your friend.”

Miyoko Chu is the principal investigator of the Merlin project at Cornell University, and she says more often than not, people turn to the internet for answers.

Type the words ‘orange bird’ into Google hoping to identify one of our feathered friends, and you’re more likely to get an image from the hit game series ‘angry birds’. But help is at hand, Chu says, for the nation’s amateur birders.

“Merlin is a machine and Merlin needs to understand how people see birds, describe birds, remember the birds they’ve seen. And in order to do that we ask people to play these games on our website.”

The games involve things like seeing a picture for several seconds on the screen and then describing to Merlin what colors and features you remembered.

Credit Cornell University

Chu says there are also labeling tasks where you click on the head of a bird and let Merlin know what that part of the body is called.

She says the more people who interact with the online tool through a range of games, the smarter Merlin becomes.

Chu says if they’re successful in training Merlin, they hope the system will eventually be smart enough to narrow down bird species from a basic search. She says birders all over the country are entering data into the system already.

The result is, Merlin now knows things like the fact that the Common Redpoll or Acanthis Flammea, is found in the north west year round, but only ventures further south and to the east in winter.

Chu says one day the system might even become clever enough that it will be possible to I-D birds on the spot.

“Someday in the future you might be able to have capability on your camera or on your binoculars where, as soon as you’ve gotten that shot, your camera or your binoculars might help give you an identification on that bird.”

Cornell is working with four other universities around the country to get Merlin up and running for the Spring bird migration.